The Celebrity Treatment

By Ben Badua

To Allen Williamson ’13, the game was “the pinnacle of my athletic career.”

What do you get when you send 16 basketball players to Atlanta from a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, treat them like celebrities, give them face time with Louisville Cardinals Coach Rick Pitino and put them on the home court of an NBA team? In Amherst’s case, you get a championship trophy.

On April 7, the men’s basketball team won the Division III NCAA championship in Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks. The 87-70 victory over the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor gave the program its second national title and a new benchmark for consecutive victories (24). It gave Head Coach David Hixon ’75 his 693rd career victory and the team’s seniors a 95–20 four-year record.

Alex Levine ’13 examines his jersey.

But the Sunday afternoon matchup wasn’t the only remarkable part of the trip. Usually, the Division III championship happens in Salem, Va., in front of a modest crowd of friends, family and basketball purists, in a 6,800-seat arena once home to the Virginia Squires of the now defunct ABA. But this year, to mark the 75th anniversary of March Madness, the NCAA held the Division II and III title games in the same city as the Division I Final Four, in a state-of-the-art NBA arena that seats 18,000, giving the DII and DIII players the types of perks usually reserved for DI powerhouses.

Fans waved as the Amherst bus went by and children stopped the players for autographs. There was a stream of interview requests, press conferences, and photo and video shoots. The Amherst men watched from a private suite in the Georgia Dome as Wichita State, Louisville, Syracuse and Michigan played in the national semifinals. The Jeffs also got a private tour of Turner Studios.

This red-carpet treatment began at the airport in Atlanta. Boarding the bus outside the terminal, the players noted the leather seats and the TVs tuned to NESN. Hixon held out his phone to take video of police officers stopping traffic to let the bus pass. “Do they do this for the NBA teams that come to town?” Hixon asked the driver. “I just took some footage in case my wife doesn’t believe we had a police escort.”

That evening brought at least three opportunities to rub elbows with coaching greats: Willy Workman ’13 and David Kalema ’14 spotted legendary Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim sitting alone on a couch. Workman didn’t want to be “that guy,” but Kalema walked up and shook his hand. Nearby, Hixon chatted up Michigan Head Coach John Beilein about the intricacies of the zone defense. Later that night, Workman shook hands with Pitino.

Another pregame highlight came after Saturday’s morning shoot-around, as the team starters recorded snippets for the stadium’s video board and the CBS broadcast. Workman was a natural in front of the camera. “How does the hair look, boys?” he joked, before spinning a basketball, then palming two balls at once. “This guy’s going to be on TV one day,” the producer said.

The crowd in Philips Arena.

Sunday was game day. “I didn’t feel tightness,” Hixon recalls. “We finally believed in who we were and who we’d become.”

From the opening tip, as the Jeffs raced to a 10-0 lead, the coach’s words rang true. Ahead from start to finish, the team solidified its place among Division III’s elite and earned its second NCAA trophy. To win a national championship, Hixon says, “everything needs to fit, and the stars have to align. So to be able to do it twice in a seven-year span, with a whole new team, gives us that stamp of validation that we’re doing the right things as a program.”

In the waning moments of regulation, with the game in hand, Hixon took out his starters to deafening applause from the Amherst faithful. The buzzer sounded and streamers fell into the crowd. The team rushed the court, embraced one another and donned championship hats and shirts. Then they hoisted the walnut and bronze trophy they’d spent the year chasing. “It was the pinnacle of my athletic career,” said Allen Williamson ’13 at the press conference afterward. “Every suicide I ran, every free throw I took after practice—it was building to the opportunity we had today.”

Amherst basketball players holding NCAA trophy

After cutting down the nets, Hixon found his wife, Mandy, and his two sons in the stands. Meanwhile, Kalema stood alone at midcourt as a photographer captured his private moment of reflection: “I can’t believe you’re going to get all these pictures of me crying,” he said.

For Player of the Year Aaron Toomey ’14, the win was especially poignant. Exactly one year earlier, his grandmother—who’d often sent him text messages after games—had died. He’d written her initials on the heels of his shoes during Sunday’s championship. Speaking to CBS’ Lewis Johnson and a national audience, Toomey announced that he had dedicated this season to her.

After winning his first championship in 2007, Hixon got lost driving alone on the back roads of Virginia. He drove and drove. “I almost didn’t want anyone to find me,” he recalls. In Atlanta, he found another moment of calm—in front of 75,000 people in the Georgia Dome. As a final send-off, the NCAA had invited the Amherst men to be recognized on the floor during Monday’s DI national championship game. During the ceremony, “Allen and I looked at each other and recognized something special was taking place,” the coach says. “But for me, it was less about the excitement or exhilaration of the moment. I wasn’t jumping up and down inside. It was that inner calmness instead, knowing you’ve accomplished something as a group to the best of your ability.”

A wet but happy Coach Hixon after the win.

Badua is director of sports information at Amherst.